It is 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the jukebox at Ben's Chili Bowl is cranking out "Super Freak" on 11. The long counter that flanks the entire side of the main room is jam-packed with diners tucking in to stacks of fluffy pancakes, heaping bowls of chili, Ben's famous half smoke sausages and of course chiliburgers. They are all in tune with the music, rocking or bobbing or swiveling on their stools in time to the beat as they feast on the generous portions before them. The open kitchen on the other side of the counter also seems to be in time with the beat as an enormous cadre of cooks and waitresses turn out a dizzying number of plates to a packed dining room to the funky verbal gyrations of Rick James.
Since 1958, through thick and thin, Ben's Chili's Bowl has endured social and political upheaval and half a century later now thrives. Situated on U Street in Washington, D.C., in a neighborhood that has seen some tumultuous shifts in economic prosperity but these days bares all the hallmarks of gentrification—there is a Starbucks only blocks away and one of the newest Metro station stops is located across the street. The construction of the station took over five years and negatively impacted Ben's business. The closure of U street effectively cut off the Chili Bowl from the rest of the world. But just as it survived the race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, the economic crisis of the 1970's and the crack epidemic of the 1980's, Ben's succeeds because it sticks to the mid century ideal of providing good food at a fair price in a welcoming environment.
The landmarked building that houses the Chili Bowl dates back to 1910 and was a former silent movie theater and later a pool hall run by Harry Beckly, one of Washington DC's first Black police detectives. When it was taken over in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali and converted into Ben's Chili Bowl it was the beginning of one of America's longest operating black owned businesses. The Chili Bowl has been at the center of African American culture in Washington DC ever since. During the restaurants early days U Street was considered the "Black Broadway" and a virtual who's who of black stars from the era frequented the Chili Bowl such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. It is reportedly Bill Cosby's favorite restaurant, but beyond show business, Ben's is rooted in politics as well; Martin Luther King ate there in the 1960's and the Clinton White House was a steady take out customer. Although Ben and Virginia are retired their sons Kamal and Nizam now run the place.
Washington DC really exists in a cultural nexus between North and South. While the frantic capitalistic spirit of America's great northern city's, the kinetic hustle and bustle of entrepreneurship exists here it is wrapped in a veneer of gentile southern hospitality and graciousness. There is a friendly, amicable nature to the interaction between customer and server and this is nowhere more apparent that at Ben's Chili Bowl. While the place is packed to the rafters with hungry patrons and the kitchen operates at a furious pace, the service is effusive and familiar. Despite having never set foot in the place before I was treated as a regular, subject to the amicable and informal banter of a neighbor.
Ben's uses fresh, never frozen beef, which is formed in to quarter pound patties and then griddle cooked. According to George Motz who named Ben's as one of the nations top burger spots in Hamburger America the beef is delivered daily from Baltimore, MD. I can believe it, both the burgers and the chili have a wonderful, fresh flavor. The griddle is hot enough to put a charred crust on Ben's famous Half Smokes and the burgers, despite being relatively svelte, also get a nice exterior char. I ordered my burger rare which I was told was not a problem but it showed up in a decidedly more well done state. To be fair the patty is really too thin to get a proper rare temperature and a decent crust. While I prefer large burgers cooked rare I have come to accept that smaller patties are just fine cooked beyond rare as long as the beef to fat ratio is high enough to maintain juiciness, and Ben's certainly is.
The burgers here come with mayo, lettuce, and their famous chili as standard. The latter is different than the chili which you get if you order a bowl at the Chili Bowl, rather than containing beans and having a relatively soupy consistency the chili that graces the burgers is all meat and has a thick, tangy sauce and a greater viscosity. The recipe is of course a family secret. The mayo, which I don't generally order on my burgers, adds enough creaminess to the dish so as to make the optional cheese on offer largely superfluous. The pillow soft squishy bun upon which the burger and chili are heaped is the perfect canvas for the other ingredients but is incapable of holding everything together. This is one sloppy burger and as you attempt to hoist it chili and lettuce will ooze out in all directions, leaving pools on the wax paper that make for an excellent dip for the potato chips that accompany the burger. Ben's also offer a double patty burger on a 6" hero role, similar in dimensions I imagine to the one I tried at Mr Smith's in Georgetown, and while I did not try the double at the Chili Bowl, I found the bun on the single so perfect that I cannot fathom that the hero bread would be an improvement.
While I think that the burger here would be world class without the chili, the beef has a wonderful flavor and the patty size is in almost perfect proportion to the excellent bun, I was surprised at how delicious it was with it. I have never been a big fan of chili burgers but I found the textural and flavor compliment to the sandwich that it offered was superb. While the chili had some bite it did not overpower the patty by being overly spicy, and the mayo and lettuce served to lighten the palate. In any case I would not feel particularly comfortable deconstructing the sandwich as there is obviously a lot of pride invested in the chili at Ben's. Who am I to argue with a recipe that is older than I am?
Ben's offers an outstanding and unique iteration of the classic American hamburger in one of the friendliest and most hospitable environments imaginable. While the decor is rather worn it is important to remember that it is all original. If you have never liked chili burgers I think that the one at Ben's might change your mind, it certainly changed mine. If you do like chili burgers then be sure to make the Chili Bowl a destination when in the nation capital, you will love Ben's chiliburger.
Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U Street, Washington DC 20009 202-667-0909 benschilibowl.com